With some dramatic flooding around York today, you might be wondering how the archive basement is doing. Our usual problem is with saturated ground, rather than the river level, so I’m pleased to report that all is well – but will keep you posted if we have any dramas as the water rises through the day.
If you want to keep an eye on the city, The York Press website is covering the floods and has some great pictures. For historic photos of previous floods and their impact on the archive see my previous post on flooding, or search our Imagine York photo catalogue for plenty more.
Hello and welcome to Lucky Dip #2 – after the success of Lucky Dip #1 I have high hopes for this next one. Now, aisle 2 is also full of minute books like the first. As we had an older record last time, I looked for something a little more recent.
Here we are: Fire Service and Licensing Committee minutes 1965-1974. Sounds promising? Not especially, but that’s why we’re looking at it! Let’s see what I can find…
Well, the reason this volume caught my eye was the distinctive binding – its of a type that I haven’t come across before. It’s very heavy and robust for its size, and has the title in gold on the front and printed on the spine. The physical presence of the book says that this is something that was intended for permanent preservation and is imbued with authority from the logo on the front.
Inside, the volume begins with alphabetical index pages which have been manually filled out by hand. However, as the little paper note below says, the index was never completed. This is both common and frustrating for a researcher – and is probably because manual indexing is so time consuming that the effort tails off!
So what exactly did the councillors on the fire and licensing committee discuss? As well as the running of the fire department, it also had responsibility for things like petrol stations, taxi licences and charity street collections. One of my favourite entries is on page 106, where they authorise the purchase of “17 dozen pairs of firemen’s socks” – a wonderful image! This level of operational detail would be very unusual for a committee today.
What really caught my eye leafing through, were the fairly frequent trips of committee members to private showings of films, like “How to undress in public without due embarrassment”(p18) in 1965 and the controversial Swedish sex education film “Language of Love” in 1971 (p218). After viewing the films, the committee then decided whether to approve the film for showing locally, and at what certificate. The first was approved at 18, in accordance with the BBFC, the latter was refused.
Now I was surprised the local council was doing this in the 1960s and 1970s as I knew the British Board of Film Classification (originally Censorship) is older than that, so here I turn unapologetically to the power of Wikipedia from which the below derives.
Apparently, it all goes back to the 1909 Cinematograph Act which required local councils to licence public cinemas. This was designed to introduce fire regulations in order to reduce the number of accidents occurring from the dangerous combination of ad hoc pop-up cinemas and flammable early film.
However, councils added their own conditions when issuing these licences, such as reserving the right to determine opening days. These additions stretched the purpose of the Act, and were challenged in court in 1910. The cinema lost and licence conditions became more common, especially for vetting individual films. To try and gain some consistency nationally, the film industry setup its own censorship body, the BBFC, in 1912 attempting to regain some control over the situation for it’s members. The BBFC did not have any power in law, but it gave councils something to follow to save the bother of checking every film.
In 1985 the BBFC gained statutory powers over recordings such as videos or DVDs, but surprisingly (for me at least), local councils still have the final say to decide what certificate a live screening of a film has and whether it can be shown in their area. In this minute book we can see that the councillors often chose to simply follow the BBFC certification, which presumably is the method applied today. However, councils still sometimes use their power to prevent films being shown or altering their certificate – typically for the most controversial of horror films.
Another minute book, another mini voyage of discovery. Let me know what you think and stay tuned for next time!
So, version 1.0 of my structure is now thoroughly tested and ready to go. I worked on it in a visual mind-map format, but have now distilled it into a simplified and accessible two-level text based catalogue structure. The final thing I need to do before showing it here is to provide some context by discussing why and how I’m following a “functional” approach, rather than a “structural/organisational” one.
Traditional archive cataloguing was developed to deal with the records of complex bureaucratic organisations such as national governments. A typical structural or organisational archive catalogue takes the arrangement of the departments as the basis for the structure, and forms a mirror image into which documents can be placed. So, in a local government context you might have a sub-fonds (section of a collection) called “ City Solicitor”, “City Engineer” or “Parks department”.
One benefit of this system is that records can be transferred directly from the originating department into that department’s place in the catalogue. This is good for preserving provenance and original order. It is also easy for someone to find a record if (and this can be a big if!) they are familiar with the organisation.
So why not just stick to this approach? Well, there are times when this might not work – such as when cataloguing the records of a group that does not have a defined hierarchical structure. However, in this instance, the major one is change over time.
Large complex bureaucratic organisations like councils or large businesses do not keep the same structures over time, they shift and change and reorganise themselves. To deal with this, you might split up the records into the different iterations of the department so it’s clear which records come from which phase.
The problem is that whilst strategic structural reorganisation may take place every decade, the underlying functions being carried out don’t really change very often! The records of street lighting, council housing or parks management may now “belong” to different departments or directorates, but someone is still creating the same records as before; logging incidents, arranging tenancies or procuring plants! Functional arrangement is simply basing your structure on the functions people are carrying out, rather than the labels attached to the department so we have “Legal” “Finance” and “Outdoor spaces” instead. This allows you to keep series of records created by a function intact, instead of artificially splitting them up to fit.
I’ll still capture and provide information about departments and reorganisations, but will bolt it on as an extra using something separate called authority files, instead of using it as the basis for arrangement.
It’s only a subtle difference really, but it means that you don’t have to rearrange your catalogue every time there is a reorganisation. This is vital for this project as some of the council’s functions spread back over centuries and it makes sense for a researcher to find records on council meetings in the 1500s somewhere near those from the 1900s, or records on maternity services grouped together despite the different providers of those services over time.
A final note – this is not quite the same as subject-based arrangement. I’m not grouping records based on topic or theme, there is still a discernible function being carried out. Neither am I breaking up records to suit my scheme, I’m just sorting the existing units I have (usually the “series”) into a sensible structure to aid navigation. The fact that vast swathes of the civic archive are in disarray and have little original order, instead of coming to us directly from the department “intact”, is one of the reasons why this approach makes the most sense.
Welcome to the first of my lucky dip posts. The aim is to pick an item off the shelves and find out what it has to offer, to show that civic archives are always interesting – even when you might not expect it!
So here we are with Strongroom 1, Aisle 1, which mainly consists of committee minutes. Now, these types of records have a reputation for being dry, but I find them fascinating as they deal with detail – the nuts and bolts of administering city life.
I picked this shelf of volumes, which are a small series of minute books covering about 150 years. I chose the slim beige volume from the left as it looks like one of the oldest. Taking it down, it has “Proceedings of the market committee” handwritten on the front cover in ink. From my background research I know that the Corporation has historically had much control over trade in the City, laying down regulations for who can sell what, when and where.
However, opening it up and having a look – I find that it is more specific than I expected, relating solely to establishment of the modern cattle market built next to Fishergate in 1827. I’ll have a quick dig in the Victoria County History to find out some background info, but let’s see what more this original document has to offer.
OK, so the first meeting takes place on 23rd January 1827. The land has already been purchased and nine committee members are meeting in the Guildhall. This first meeting is very practical, resolving to put the existing trees and hedges on the land up for auction (presumably the buyer would then extract them? If so, a cost-effective way to clear the site!) and levelling the surface with a incline running into dykes, a necessary measure as improved sanitation was a major reason for investing in the new facilities in the first place.
The rest of the meeting gives more insight into the relationship between this committee and the wider Corporation. Quite a strong tone is taken:
Resolved: “that the Corporation be informed that the committee … find it absolutely necessary that the road through Fishergate Bar communicating with Walmgate be opened”
and that “the committee will want a considerable sum of money for the completion of the cattle market and beg the direction of the corporation how they will have it raised.”
The first meeting ends with the decision to buy a new book in which to record their resolutions, which is most likely to be the one we are looking at now.
Skipping forward, the meetings follow how the market takes shape from a piece of land into a working facility. There are records of site visits to check on progress, and in June we find fact-finding notes on the Wakefield market for comparison.
The first fair was held on 4th October 1827, and the accounts are entered in the volume. They took in £18 10s 10d, most of which was raised from sheep, rather than cattle.
Checking in the VCH again, we can find out that a new inn was added in 1828. However, if you look at the original documents instead, not only can you read the discussions leading up to why that decision was made, but even see a pasted in clipping of the invitation to tender that went out in the paper.
The new market hosted 32 fairs in its first year. The receipts for each one are duly recorded. You can also see from this that many of the fairs still took place on traditional religious feasts such as All Souls’ Day, on which a cattle fair had been held (previously in Walmgate) since at least 1736.
So there we go, one small volume with a not very exciting title, but unique information on how a major improvement in York, that had been called for decades, was put into action step by step.
It is far from the only source on the subject, and like all archives is best combined with others such as plans and newspapers. However, minutes have the potential to take you back into a room with a named group of people in a certain time and place, who were working out how to make something happen. That’s their value and charm, and you can’t help but learn something new.
To mix things up a bit I’m going to start a series of posts on actual individual records, that will pop up between my other topics. I could carefully select items that are particularly special, but as I have a crazy notion that ALL archives are interesting if you just look at them in the right way, I’m going to try an experiment.
I’m going to start at the first aisle in the strongroom and pick something randomly off the shelves, based on outside appearance alone. I’ll get it down, open it up and see what I can find. Next time, I’ll go to aisle two and so on. The aim is to go through the collection highlighting the massive diversity of material in the civic archive and what unique information you find when you get down to the nitty gritty. Some of the records may have been listed before, others untouched for a decade. I’ll try and mix up the age and formats of documents so we get as much variety as possible.
This is a bit of a gamble, but I think it’s worth a go. If it fails miserably I can always stop and no harm done! It should help demonstrate why cataloguing this collection is worthwhile, and that the mundane has just as much to teach us as the sublime. First post will be up tomorrow, kicking things off with an early nineteenth-century committee volume…